Aquaculture’s crucial role to feed billionsGlobal aquaculture production reached 82.1 million tonnes in 2018, according to the FAO’s recent SOFOA report

The recent Virtual Ocean Dialogues conference confirmed that while the sector has made strong progress, some important obstacles still need to be overcome, writes Jason Holland.

As a means of food production, aquaculture has come a long way in a relatively short space of time, but if it’s to realise its full potential as a global nutritional security solution – providing healthy, sustainable and affordable protein and meeting shifting consumer expectations – then the sector must rapidly accelerate its progress. This was a key message that rang loud and clear from the Virtual Ocean Dialogues conference, recently hosted by the World Economic Forum (WEF) and Friends of the Ocean.

Convening leaders and communities from across the global ocean space, the special session “Nourishing Billions” estimated that already around 1 billion people rely on fish as their main source of animal protein, while many more gain nutritional benefit from other aquatic foods such as shellfish, seaweed and algae. Meanwhile 10-12% of the world’s population rely on fish for their livelihoods.

While the strains on ocean food systems will increase as demand continues to grow, and there remains much ground to cover with regards to tackling socio-economic challenges within aquatic food value chains, the event also identified that a healthy and regenerative ocean, incorporating carefully managed fishing and sustainable aquaculture, could potentially produce six times as much food as it does today, while at the same time creating sustainable economic growth and employment.

Learning lessons

Setting the scene in his keynote address, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Director-General Qu Dongyu, stated thatwell before the coronavirus pandemic, providing nutritional food for billions of people was an enormous challenge.

“Covid-19 has inflicted terrible losses – both in terms of lives and economies – and poses new global challenges, but there are also lessons to be learned on how to make food systems more robust and resilient in the future,” he said. “We are heading towards a new normal – the time after the pandemic. In this way, as the Chinese proverb says, ‘there may be fortune in misfortune’.”

Because fish and other aquatic foods are “truly natural superfoods”, fulfilling essential nutritional needs, and are often much more accessible and affordable than many other animal proteins, Qu Dongyu emphasised the essential role that oceans have in feeding future generations. At the same time, he acknowledged that the deployment of new, evolving innovations are changing the way that fisheries are managed and operated. They are also revolutionising the way that trade and sales are conducted, and ensuring food safety and the legality of origin.

Last but not least, and already providing more than half of all the aquatic produced consumed by human beings, aquaculture is “fundamental” to the future food supply, he said.

“Marine aquaculture, including seaweed, represents huge potential and a real hope for the future. The progress in a number of areas could be a real gamechanger, including genetic selection, breeding and feed technology, the farming of new species, and the development of advanced equipment and logistics.”

Feed innovation

Rosamond Naylor, Founding Director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment at Stanford University, said that she believes the aquaculture sector is already awash with innovations, particularly in regards to the types of systems now being used globally and also the work that’s going into alternative feed ingredients and the progression of circular economies. However, she accepts that there’s a lot of ground still to cover commercially.

“Aquaculture has become the dominant form of fish production,” she said. “And while a lot [of the species] are sustainable – clams, oysters etc. – many also have sustainability challenges. They depend on wild fish for inputs into feeds, or they use antibiotics, or they make habitat changes in the oceans. There’s a lot of attention that needs to be directed towards sustainability in both fisheries and aquaculture.”

Giles Bolton, Responsible Sourcing Director at Tesco, told the conference that he believes aquaculture “has the greatest potential”, but that it needs to dramatically step up its efforts, particularly on the feed ingredient side.

He said that the UK retailer has recognised “the whole of the food industry has to change rapidly”, because it is already the second biggest contributor to climate change, and because of the advances of renewable energy, will become the biggest contributor by 2040.

It’s also the main contributor to global biodiversity loss, he said, adding that these problems are likely to be exacerbated by a global population that’s set to reach 10 billion by 2050.

“That’s why things have to change. Aquaculture is extraordinarily interesting because while plant-based protein has to be one solution to feeding the world’s people, aquaculture is the key solution for animal-based protein.

“With the greenhouse gas emissions coming from so much meat production, and deforestation linked to so much poultry production, it’s very difficult to see how you can scale up. In fact, some of those may need to scale down. But with aquaculture, if we can get it right, it’s potential is fantastic.

“Although there is positive momentum, we’re some way off from getting this to the right place. So while many of us have focused for a number of years in supermarkets like mine that the wild fish we sell is from a sustainable source, still too much of the feed that goes into aquaculture is not from a sustainable source – it’s coming from the same wild fisheries as other products. So we have to go harder and faster with innovation.”

Bolton explained that some of Tesco’s suppliers are doing “very exciting things” with insect protein instead of fishmeal, and also substituting conventional fish oil with algal oil that’s extracted from farmed micro-algae that has naturally high levels of the omega-3 oils eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

“We’ll certainly need to see diversification of the feed sector. Also, at the moment, insect feed works on paper, but the challenge is getting it to the scale where it can replace the current efficient systems. Creating omega-3 from seaweed – that could be easily scalable, but at the moment it’s more expensive. So how do we move from a great idea to economic reality?”

Growth trends

With the FAO’s newly-published 2020 edition of its biennial publication, “The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture” (SOFIA) report, finding that global aquaculture production reached a record level of 82.1 million tonnes in 2018 and is forecast to reach 109 million tonnes by 2030, Audun Lem, Deputy Director, Fisheries and Aquaculture Department of the FAO, agreed that the sector has“tremendous growth potential” over the next few decades – underpinned by increased consumption.

“SOFIA mostly brings good news,” Audun Lem said. “Good news in the sense that the world’s production is increasing both from capture fisheries and aquaculture to almost 180 million tonnes, the human consumption of these products is increasing and has reached almost 20.5kg. But there are very large regional differences, with some places, like the Maldives, having a very large consumption – more than 100kg per person per year – whereas some landlocked countries have a much lower average. What’s encouraging is that in developing countries, consumption is increasing.”

Bucking this trend, though, Africa’s per capita consumption of just 10kg is a strong cause for concern, said Lem.

“This is worrying in itself, but it’s also worrying because it’s declining through population growth. Africa does, however, have very large potential for aquaculture production, and we have a number of programmes supporting that development.

“Overall, this shows that fish is part of the solution and cannot be ignored, and so there are many reasons to be optimistic for the future,” he said.

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